Intermediate Edition

I.  Symbolic Rites


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Chapter 29  Part I

Symbolic Rites

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are considered by many churches to be the Christian rites or sacraments. “Sacrament” comes from a Latin term meaning “military oath”. The sacraments are often spoken of as being an outward sign with an inner significance. They are practiced by churches in worship ceremonies. Circumcision was also a rite practiced by God’s people, under the first covenant, but has no such relevance under the second covenant.


The Greek translated as “baptism” denotes washing in water. Opinions differ as to whether baptism need necessarily involve full immersion in water, as opposed to simply pouring or sprinkling water on the person being baptized.

God’s people are baptized in the “name” of Jesus Christ

On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.   Acts 19:5 ESV

Being baptized in or into the “name” of Jesus Christ, is in part a declaration of our identification and relationship with Jesus Christ, and our commitment or allegiance to him. This explanation reflects both the meaning of the Latin from which “sacrament” comes – military oath (as commented above) – and the concept of being united with Christ (discussed in the following subsection).

Baptism into Jesus Christ signifies being united with him – with the corresponding implications

[Paul, to believers:] How can we who died as far as sin is concerned go on living in it? 3Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into union with the Messiah Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore, through baptism we were buried with him into his death so that, just as the Messiah was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too may live an entirely new life. 5For if we have become united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.   Romans 6:2b-5 ISV

After indicating that baptism signifies the spiritual union of the believer with Christ (v. 3), Paul draws parallels between baptism and other aspects of this spiritual union. Paul appears to parallel one’s immersion in water at baptism, with being immersed in death with Christ in his death (vv. 3-4a, 5a). As such, baptism portrays the death of our old self which was enslaved to sin (cf. vv. 6-7), and so a death to sin (v. 2b). Subsequently baptism symbolizes one being raised up in union with Christ to live a new spiritual life (vv. 4b, 5b).

Baptism signifies belief

But when they believed Philip as he was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they began to be baptized, both men and women.   Acts 8:12 NET

Baptism is a declaration and confirmation of belief.

Baptism signifies the washing away of sins

[Ananias, to Saul:] And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.   Acts 22:16 NET

This should not be interpreted to mean that baptism in itself brings the forgiveness of sin. Rather, the external washing in water is symbolic of one’s spiritual cleansing.

The Lord’s Supper

The Lord’s Supper is regularly practiced in churches. It primarily symbolizes and commemorates Jesus Christ’s death for us. The breaking of the bread symbolizes the breaking of his body, and the pouring out of the wine symbolizes the pouring out of his blood.

Observe the Lord’s Supper – in remembrance of Jesus Christ and his death

[Paul, to the Corinthian believers:] For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, 24and after he had given thanks he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.”   1 Corinthians 11:23-25 NET

“This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (v. 25), speaks of Jesus Christ’s blood, shed in his death, introducing the new relationship – or covenant – between God and his people. In part at least this was achieved by his death bringing forgiveness for the sins of God’s people. The shedding of his blood inaugurated the new covenant and ratified or sealed it (cf. AMP, GNT, NCV, NLT) – just as the sprinkling of “the blood of the covenant” by Moses ceremonially confirmed the old covenant (cf. Exodus 24:5-8).

Participating in the Lord’s Supper also symbolizes participating in the blood and body of Jesus Christ

[Paul, to the Corinthian believers:] The cup of blessing that we bless is a sign of our sharing in the blood of the Messiah, isn’t it? The bread that we break is a sign of our sharing in the body of the Messiah, isn’t it? 17Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, because all of us partake of the one loaf.   1 Corinthians 10:16-17 ISV

The two rhetorical questions in v. 16 appear to imply that drinking from the cup and eating of the bread – in addition to remembering Jesus Christ and his death – symbolize one’s participation in what Christ’s death accomplished, i.e. forgiveness and thus salvation. However, in view of v. 17, the second rhetorical question may well additionally or alternatively mean that eating from the one loaf of bread symbolizes one being part of and participating in Christ’s body, the church.

Circumcision: Its Needlessness

Circumcision of males is the cutting off of the foreskin. Jewish males undergo circumcision in keeping with both God’s covenant with Abraham (their ancestor), and God’s covenant and law for Israel, i.e. the Mosaic Law.

In regard to God’s covenant and law for Israel, being circumcised signifies one’s adherence to the law – on which the covenant was based – as the way to righteousness. This is in contrast to and at odds with the way of faith in Jesus Christ, which God introduced in conjunction with the new covenant.

Circumcision does not bring salvation

Now some men came down from Judea [to the church at Antioch] and began to teach the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2When Paul and Barnabas had a major argument and debate with them, the church appointed Paul and Barnabas and some others from among them to go up to meet with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this point of disagreement. … [Peter:] 11On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are.”   Acts 15:1-2, 11 NET

In v. 11 the apostle Peter sides emphatically with Paul and Barnabas (v. 2), indicating that circumcision and adherence to the OT law (which circumcision symbolizes) do not bring salvation.

Circumcision is of no consequence for believers

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision carries any weight – the only thing that matters is faith working through love.   Galatians 5:6 NET

It is our hearts that should be circumcised

Therefore, circumcise your heart and stop being stubborn.   Deuteronomy 10:16 ISV

Circumcision of the heart involves changing to become responsive to God. It involves “cutting off” the rigidity of sin from a person’s heart.

Pray for persecuted Christians